Written by Kyra GauthierDickey, ESLLC 2017-2018
“My insurance company’s never going to believe this,” Walter Umenhofer reportedly said, as a worker used a shovel to remove a three-feet long piece of whale blubber off of the hood of his car. The weather had been beautiful that day until it started raining whale carcass. Walter was just one of many spectators who flocked to the Florence, Oregon beach with camera in hand to witness an unusual removal of a beached whale.
Although many theories have been proposed as to why cetacean stranding occurs, but the phenomenon remains for the most part a mystery. One theory is that because the echolocation system is poor at picking up small changes in degrees, whales unknowingly swim up a gently-sloping coastline. This theory is supported by the many mass beaching spots that have coastlines with slopes of about ½ of a degree. However, evidence also points towards the recent increase in whale beachings to be caused by human impacts in the forms of pollution, shipping noise, and even military sonar.
(“Volunteers pour water on pilot whales during a mass stranding at Farewell Spit, on February 11, 2017 (AFP Photo/Marty MELVILLE)” https://www.yahoo.com/news/fresh-whale-stranding-notorious-zealand-beach-224457312.html)
By the time beached whales are found by humans, they are often dead or near death, but that rarely stops humans from trying to save them. The whales often sustain fatal internal injuries due to their unsupported massive weight, drown when their blowholes get covered by water or sand, or injure a flipper by toppling over onto it – causing them to be unable to steer even if returned to the ocean. A successful saving of a beached whale is exceedingly rare. The whales are usually seen beached again soon after. Therefore, whether or not to put them out of their misery or try to save them is controversial. Some scientists have been researching systems that could help prevent mass beachings at coastlines with very-gentle slopes. However, the question has been raised as to whether this would be unethical as it could interfere with natural evolution.
Back in 1970, the Oregon Highway Division had jurisdiction over the Oregon beaches. After consulting the United States Navy, it was decided that the whale would be removed like a boulder – with dynamite, more specifically: 20 fifty-pound cases of explosives. The theory was that it would be blown towards the ocean and into small enough pieces for scavengers to consume. After the dynamite was placed, spectators were pushed back for safety reasons, and then the whale was detonated – a 100 foot high eruption of whale carcass and sand. Bits of whale flew as far as 800 feet away. Spectators ran away in fear of the pieces of blubber hurling towards them. Then, a rain of rancid small particles started falling. A large hole was left where the whale once lay. Unfortunately, the sound of the blast scared away the scavengers who were supposed to come in and clean up the site, but the Highway Division considered the operation a success.
Oregon has come a long way from the exploding whale in 1970. Nowadays, the Oregon State Parks Department has jurisdiction over the beaches, and the policy for removing beached whales is to bury them where they land.